Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is an Incendiary Masterpiece

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a game that I did not think would exist. At the end of the previous game, 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, I was pretty sure the game’s hero, William Joseph Blazkowicz, known to most of his friends as BJ, was dead. The announcement of the Wolfenstein II earlier this year took me completely by surprise, and I was thrilled at the chance to play another fun Nazi-blasting adventure, but I was possibly even more excited to discover that BJ had survived.

Image: Bethesda

This level of attachment to a video-game protagonist is rare for me. Wolfenstein: The New Order surprised me by how well-written it was, by how well the characters were developed and how fully-realized the game’s world was. For a game that featured a level set aboard a Nazi moon base, The New Order was shockingly good at getting the player to care about its characters. Even without the likable characters and strong world-building, The New Order still would have been a fun adventure. But the game’s creators went the extra mile in expanding on the characters and lore of the game’s universe, which made for a much richer experience.

Wolfenstein II takes all of that and dials it up to eleven. Right from the start of the new game, I was deeply invested in the story, and I cared a lot about BJ and his relationships. At the end of The New Order, BJ defeated the hideously evil Nazi General Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse, but was grievously injured in the process. So badly injured that, as I stated above, I thought he was toast. Wolfenstein II opens with BJ being found by his allies and stitched back together. BJ awakens months later after having been in a coma, and at first, he can’t even walk. For the first section of the game, the player controls BJ in a wheelchair.

From the very beginning, the game emphasizes BJ’s vulnerability. He’s not the same man he was in The New Order. His body is broken, and he can only walk at the start of the game once he gets a set of badass power armor. Even then, the game reminds the player how vulnerable BJ is by setting his max health at 50, half of what is usually is. The message is clear: BJ is in trouble.

This is made all the more clear once it is revealed that Anya, BJ’s girlfriend from The New Order, is pregnant with twins. For the first half of the game, BJ doesn’t want to spend time with her, since he knows how broken his body is and doesn’t have the heart to tell Anya that she’ll have to raise their kids by herself, since he’s sure he’s going to die.

Image: Bethesda

That’s heartbreaking. If you’ve never played a Wolfenstein game before, I really need to emphasize how remarkable all of this is because everything else in these games is absolutely ludicrous. The New Order and The New Colossus take place in the 1960’s after the Nazis won World War II. They were able to do this by using technology invented by the Da’at Yichud, an ancient organization of, basically, Jewish science magicians. This technology enabled the Nazis to create energy weapons, computer AI’s, and advanced armor and robots that the Allies could not defeat. The irony that, in the game’s universe, the Nazis won the war using reverse-engineered Jewish technology is very apparent. The games are full of giant Nazi robots, spaceships, and robot dogs. They’re utterly ridiculous.

So it is quite extraordinary that the games put so much effort into getting the player to care about its characters. It also helps that BJ is voiced by an actor named Brian Bloom, who gives one of the best vocal performances I’ve ever heard in a video game. He’s soulful and introspective, while still being a stone-cold badass. BJ looks quite a bit like the Houston Texans’ JJ Watt, or perhaps the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski. BJ’s first appearance was in Wolfenstein 3D in 1992, in which he was simply a vehicle for killing Nazis. Part of this is due to the limited technology available to game developers at the time, but it is still nothing short of amazing that the new series of Wolfenstein games are able to turn him into a flesh-and-blood human being.

We learn a lot more about BJ’s past in Wolfenstein II. It turns out that his mother was Jewish and his father was abusive and racist. There’s a flashback sequence early in the game in which BJ’s mother hides him in the closet when his father gets home and his father angrily berates her because BJ befriended a black girl. BJ’s father hits his mother and takes BJ to the basement, where he explains his belief that other inferior races need the white man to save them. He then ties BJ’s hands to a sawhorse and forces him to shoot his dog with a shotgun.

This happens within minutes of starting the game. Wolfenstein II is not messing around. BJ encounters his father again in the present, where he learns that his mother was sent to a concentration camp because she was Jewish. BJ’s father is unrepentant and states his intention to turn BJ over to the Nazis, and BJ kills him. Wolfenstein II is a game in which the player character kills his own father, and it feels like an incredibly cathartic moment.

The relationship between BJ and his pregnant girlfriend Anya is extraordinary. Anya loves BJ and is the only person in the game who calls him William. I’ve played a lot of video games, and Wolfenstein II might be the only one in which I felt like two characters actually loved each other. I cared so much about BJ and Anya. There’s a scene late in the game in which Anya, heavily pregnant and already covered in Nazi blood, blasts more Nazis with a machine gun in each hand while BJ watches on in amazement, and I thought, these kids are meant for each other. BJ proposes to Anya at the end of the game, and one of the many reasons I hope there’s a Wolfenstein III in a few years is to see them get together.

The game’s villain is thoroughly despicable. Her name is Frau Engel, and she already has a bone to pick with BJ after the events of The New Order. She’s sadistic and vicious, at one point beheading one of BJ’s friends and dangling the severed head in front of his face while making kissing noises. She also has a chubby daughter named Sigrun, who does not follow her mother’s evil ways. Sigrun is kind and ends up joining BJ’s side and helping the rebels fight the Nazis.

Image: Bethesda

One would think that fighting to free America from Nazi control would unequivocally be a good thing, and it is, but Wolfenstein II also takes pains to show that the situation is not black and white. At one point while I was playing, after killing a few enemies in one area, going somewhere else, and then returning to the original area, I encountered more Nazis. They were talking, and before I started blasting them I stopped to listen to their conversation. One of them was expressing his shock that one of his friends had recently been killed (presumably by me), because he was just about to get married. “How am I going to tell his fiancée?” the Nazi exclaimed. This actually made me feel bad about killing Nazis in a video game. I have killed many Nazis in many video games, and not once have I ever felt bad about it. Not until Wolfenstein II.

If it wasn’t already clear, Wolfenstein II is a game with balls. It is not afraid to go to places most video games wouldn’t and I’m not just talking about the story and the characters. The entire game is politically charged, and almost frighteningly relevant to the current political climate. Most games shy away from this sort of thing, but Wolfenstein II charges into it with a full head of steam. In one level, BJ is on an undercover mission on the streets of Roswell, New Mexico, and there are fully-hooded Klansmen walking around in the street. You’re probably getting tired of hearing me say stuff like this, but I have never seen this in a game before. Later on, some of the enemies you fight are Klansmen, and Wolfenstein II is the only game I have ever played that lets you plant an axe in a Klansman’s neck.

Image: Bethesda

Later on, the player encounters Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler is an old man at this point, and he’s clearly more than a little senile. He waves a gun around and shoots people at random, pisses in a bucket and at one point collapses into the fetal position and cries for his mother. It’s a provocative scene, made even more so by how plausible it is. At the time period in which the game takes place, Hitler has had absolute power for decades, and he has become a coddled dictator who is used to getting whatever he wants. He’s well on his way to being insane (if he’s not there already) and everyone has to act like he’s infallible for fear of being shot in the face. By the way, the entire Hitler scene takes place on a Nazi base on the planet Venus, and it is incredible that the fact the Hitler scene takes place on Venus is not the craziest thing about it.

Image: Bethesda

“When you take freedom away from the American people, you are playing with fire,” BJ says to a fellow revolutionary. “And I intend to pour gasoline all over that fire.” A game like Wolfenstein II takes 2-3 years to make, so it’s not like the game’s developers saw what was happening in the news over the past couple months regarding Nazis and white supremacists and decided to put all of this politically-charged stuff in the game. It was already there to begin with. The developers have stated that the game was not intended to be a commentary on current events, but the fact that it feels like one is a testament to the strength of the game’s writing. Also, the development company that made Wolfenstein II is Swedish. Think about that.

It’s so refreshing in this era of political correctness to encounter something that does not give a damn about being politically correct. Wolfenstein II’s primary advertising tagline was “Make America Nazi-Free Again.” I love how the game’s marketing was so brazenly unconcerned about not pissing people off. And the game has drawn criticism from alt-right whackos who say it unfairly associates them with Nazis, but the game’s creators did not care and nothing about the game or its marketing was changed, which makes me love it all the more. The game’s story ends with BJ and his friends executing the evil Frau Engel on live TV, and the end credits play with the accompaniment of a metal version of the Twisted Sister song “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

Image: Bethesda

I love Wolfenstein II. It’s bold and brazen and oh-so-satisfying. It’s also loads of fun to actually play, and isn’t so concerned with character development that it forgets to deliver on the core gameplay. The Nazi-killing action is fun, furious, and gory as hell, which is everything it should be. Please let there be a Wolfenstein III.

Recently Taylor Sheridan, the writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water, made his directorial debut with Wind River, a thriller that follows the investigation of a murdered young woman at a Native American reservation in Wyoming. It’s a chilling and excellent film, and we’ll be talking about it next week.

Justice League: The World Ain’t Saving Itself

Warner Bros. and DC Comics’ attempts to emulate Marvel and Disney’s success with an interconnected cinematic universe of superheroes has met with mixed results, to say the least. They started off reasonably well with Man of Steel in 2013, before stumbling with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad in 2016. They scored their first major hit with Wonder Woman earlier this year, and were hoping for another big hit with Justice League, the superhero team-up movie that is DC Comics’ version of the Avengers.

Image: Warner Bros.

Well, they’re back to the mixed results, since Justice League earned middling reviews and underwhelming box-office returns. It’s still a fun action-packed romp, but behind-the-scenes drama may have prevented it from being an Avengers-sized hit.

The movie is a flat two hours long, apparently a result of a Warner Bros. mandate that the film not exceed two hours in length, after Batman V Superman was criticized for being overlong at two and a half hours. The shorter running time of Justice League means that the pacing is better and the movie has a good sense of momentum, but the downside is that the characters aren’t as fully fleshed-out as they might have been given more time to develop them.

The movie was also subject to extensive reshoots, which were directed by Avengers maestro Joss Whedon after original director Zack Snyder stepped away from the film for a time for personal reasons. This means that Justice League was essentially directed by two different directors, although only Snyder is credited. Fortunately, the new scenes are integrated well enough that it didn’t seem to me that parts of the film were directed by different people, although I’m sure fans will have fun trying to figure out which scenes were shot by Whedon. I think Whedon was brought in to film mostly new dialogue scenes to help flesh out the characters and their relationships a bit, since “relationships” are not exactly one of Zack Snyder’s strong suits.

Snyder gets a lot of hate, much of which I think is undeserved. People just love to hate the guy for whatever reason. I think that he has a talent for eye-catching visuals and is a good director of kinetic action sequences, but the characters in his films don’t resonate as strongly as the visuals and action scenes. One of the best descriptions I’ve heard of Snyder’s work is that his films are full of great moments and memorable images, but good individual moments don’t necessarily add up to a great movie. This is a good description of Justice League as well, regardless of which director directed which scenes.

Image: Warner Bros.

But who are the characters in Justice League? There are six, and the identity of one of them could be considered a spoiler, since Warner Bros. kept him out of the film’s marketing materials. So, spoiler alert, I guess, although this character’s appearance will not come as much of a surprise for anyone familiar with comic books. When we last Superman, he was dead, killed by the monster called Doomsday at the end of Batman V Superman. He gets resurrected in Justice League, and I’ll keep the details of his resurrection a secret, although I will say that I thought it was handled pretty well, and that it was well-integrated with the rest of the film’s plot.

The other five characters, and the ones that the marketing focused on, are Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. We already know Batman and Wonder Woman, but the other three are making their big-screen debuts (not counting their brief introductory cameos in earlier films). The movie has a lot of weight on its shoulders, since it has to establish these characters and set up a villain that will take their combined efforts to defeat, especially with the truncated two-hour running time.

When the first Avengers movie came out back in 2012, it had a distinct advantage over the Justice League movie. In that film, we were already familiar with the characters, since we had seen them in previous movies. Even the film’s villain, Loki, was someone we already knew well. In Justice League, three of the main characters are essentially new to the film’s universe (again, not counting those earlier cameos), as is the film’s villain.

That villain is named Steppenwolf, and he’s…underwhelming. He’s basically a harbinger of interdimensional doom who wants to unleash hell on earth and looks like he walked off the cover of a heavy metal album. He has an army of flying bug-eyed creatures called parademons and, look, the whole thing is pretty silly. The plot feels very compressed and viewers who aren’t familiar with the comic-book lore may very well wonder what the hell is going on. And while the big picture is clear (good guys must defeat bad guy before he unleashes hell on earth) the details are hazy.

Fortunately, I did like the good-guy characters. The movie has a better grasp of Batman (played again by Ben Affleck) than Batman V Superman did (Batman doesn’t kill anyone this time around), and Wonder Woman (the excellent Gal Gadot) is great. Aquaman (played by Conan the Barbarian Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (played by Ray Fisher) are fun characters, and the movie pokes fun at Aquaman’s much-mocked ability to communicate with fish. But the character who steals the movie is Barry Allen, aka The Flash, played by Ezra Miller.

Image: Warner Bros.

The Flash is easily the funniest character, and Miller steals every scene he’s in. Barry is a guy who really wants to do good in the world and is super excited to hang out with Batman and Wonder Woman and the gang, but he’s the first person to admit he may be in a bit over his head. “It’s great that you guys are ready to go in and do battle, but I’ve never done battle before,” he tells Batman. “I’ve just pushed people and run away.” The movie’s best lines all belong to him, and I’m looking forward to his solo film, although it’s still a few years away.

The special effects and action sequences are top-notch, which isn’t too surprising since Zack Snyder always delivers films that look and sound great, even if he struggles in other areas. There are a lot of fun superhero battles, and the movie has a much brighter color palette than previous DC Comics movies, which is nice to see. The characters look great and the costumes, weapons, vehicles and the like are badass, especially Batman’s awesome vehicles and Bat-tech. I also loved Barry’s wide-eyed reaction to seeing the Batcave for the first time: “It’s like a cave…a…bat-cave!”

The movie is much lighter in tone than Snyder’s previous DC films, which were heavily criticized for being too dark. There are a lot of jokes and funny moments (most of which belong to Barry) as well as a very funny scene involving Aquaman and Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth. I also got a kick out of Barry’s first meeting with Wonder Woman. “Hello, Barry, I’m Diana,” she says to him. Clearly smitten, he says to her, “Hello, Barry, I’m Diana. Wait, that’s not right.” It’s good to see Snyder having more fun with these characters.

Image: Warner Bros.

Justice League may not be up to the high standard set by the rest of this year’s comic-book superhero films, but I still enjoyed it. It’s hard to say how much the behind-the-scenes shakeups impacted the movie (there are several scenes in the trailers that aren’t in the film), but I still had fun with it. Maybe the Blu-ray release will include the director’s cut or something and we’ll be able to see some of the stuff that was left out. I still enjoyed Justice League overall, and while Wonder Woman remains the best movie in DC’s interconnected superhero universe, Justice League is quite a bit of fun, and 2017 was a much better year for DC movies than 2016 was, which is a relief.

Coming up next is something a bit different. For the past couple weeks I’ve been playing a lot of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. It’s a game full of Nazi-killing and ridiculous sci-fi shenanigans, but underneath all that is a game that cares deeply about its story and characters, and has a surprising amount of real-world relevance, despite the ludicrous robot-laser-space Nazis. Join me next week for a discussion of one of the most provocative video games to come around in quite some time. See you then.

Murder on the Orient Express: Bad Mustache, Good Movie

When I saw the first trailer for Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie novel “Murder on the Orient Express” my initial reaction was “My God, what an appalling mustache.”

It’s true. In addition to directing the movie, Branagh also plays Christie’s famous detective Hercule Poirot. I associate Poirot with David Suchet, who played Poirot on TV from 1989 to 2013, which is frankly astonishing. Suchet’s Poirot always had an immaculate mustache, whereas Branagh’s version seemed to have an overgrown monstrosity that looked to me like a Civil War general’s facial hair.

Image: 20th Century Fox

I was also nervous about Branagh’s portrayal of Poirot in general. Branagh is a very talented actor and filmmaker, but he tends to be his own worst enemy. In films in which he both directs and stars, he always gives himself a lot of screen time. I get the impression that he’s got a bit of an ego. I was concerned that his portrayal of Poirot would be too over-the-top, that he would exaggerate Poirot’s accent and mannerisms far too much.

Fortunately, he reined it in, delivering a far more restrained performance than I had been expecting. There are a couple of moments that don’t quite work, such as a moment early in the film in which Poirot steps in horse poop. But these moments don’t overwhelm the film. Despite the Stonewall Jackson mustache, Branagh is quite good as Poirot, and the film as a whole follows his lead. It’s not perfect, but it’s entertaining and engaging.

Aside from Branagh, there are tons of great actors in the movie. Branagh has given himself a hell of a cast to work with, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, and Daisy Ridley. All of them are great, even if some feel underutilized.

If you’re concerned about spoilers, don’t worry. I won’t give anything major away. The story is exactly what you would think of from the title: a group of people who are mostly strangers to one another are on a train together for a few days, until one of them turns up dead. The train gets stopped by an avalanche so they’re stuck together until workers for the train company come and dig them out, and one of them is a killer.

It’s an irresistible premise, and Branagh is able to mine it for all of the drama and suspense he can get. The movie also looks great, and there are a lot of shots that look gorgeous. It must have been a ton of fun to work on this film, everything and everyone in it looks fantastic. The costumes are immaculate and the sets are beautiful, and even Poirot’s absurd mustache starts to look natural once you get used to it.

Image: 20th Century Fox

The trailers for the movie make it look more action-packed than it really is. This is not an action movie, it’s a murder mystery. If you come into it expecting slow-motion action sequences like something from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies, you’re going to be disappointed. This is an old-school whodunit. Poirot is a detective, not an action hero. One could say the same about Holmes of course, but I digress.

The movie has its flaws. A couple plot elements are somewhat unclear, and certain aspects of the film have an air of theatricality that doesn’t quite ring true. I saw the movie with the family, and we all agreed that whenever people were outside in the snow, they never looked particularly cold, despite the fact that they were in the middle of the damn mountains. These flaws don’t ruin the experience, but they are noticeable.

There are also quite a few funny moments. Not all of them work (see: horse poop) but a lot of them do. Poirot in this film has a certain knack for comedic understatement that leads to a couple of good chuckles, and it’s easy to see that Branagh is having fun playing Poirot and not taking himself too seriously. And how could it not be fun to play such a great character? I especially liked Poirot’s high-pitched giggles that he uttered while reading Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

Branagh’s adaptation is not perfect by any means, but it’s fun and engaging and presents a compelling mystery with a surprising outcome. It was surprising to me at least because I have not read Christie’s book, nor have I seen any of the previous film or TV versions of Murder on the Orient Express. From what I understand the movie is largely faithful to the book, with the biggest differences being that some of the film’s characters are changed slightly from their literary counterparts.

Branagh has made a fun and suspenseful murder mystery, and it takes place in a world in which the viewer can’t help but be swept up in. It’s fun to be a part of the movie’s world, and even though the ride is a bit bumpy at times it still gets you there in the end.

Next week, it’s back to superheroes with the long-awaited superhero ensemble Justice League. It’s got a lot to live up to, with 2017 having been a standout year for superhero cinema (Logan, Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor Ragnarok were all excellent). Early buzz has been encouraging, so hopefully Justice League will be closer to Wonder Woman than Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice or Suicide Squad. Tune in next week to find out.

Thor Gets Thunderstruck in THOR: RAGNAROK

Marvel is on a roll this year. They’ve released three new installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok), as well as Logan, Hugh Jackman’s poignant final appearance as Wolverine.

And I loved all four of those movies.

The latest is THOR: RAGNAROK, which is absolute loads of fun.

Image: Marvel/Disney

The standalone Thor films are generally regarded as some of the weaker entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. They’re not terrible by any means, but they’re not as good as the Captain America or Avengers films, for example. Ragnarok is by far the best solo Thor movie and one of the best MCU movies in general.

The movie was directed by a New Zealander named Taika Waititi, previously known for two well-received independent films, What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. I haven’t seen either of those films, but I’ve heard lots of great things about them. Ragnarok is Waititi’s first foray into big-budget blockbuster filmmaking, and he nails it. He perfectly captures the humor, beautiful visuals, and exciting action scenes that MCU movies have become known for. His style is the perfect fit for Thor.

Ragnarok is a surprisingly hilarious movie, and is right up there with Spider-Man: Homecoming and the Guardians of the Galaxy films as one of the funniest Marvel movies. The cast has great chemistry and there are more funny lines and moments than I can even remember off the top of my head as I’m writing this. Waititi has said that much of the dialogue was improvised, which shows how good the actors are together.

Chief among them are Chris Hemsworth as the heroic Thor and Tom Hiddleston as his mischievous adopted brother Loki. Both actors have been playing these roles since 2011, and they’re both fantastic. Their relationship is consistently interesting and funny, and it’s so much fun to watch the two actors bounce off each other. Even though they’ve been playing these characters for more than half a decade, the tempestuous relationship between the brothers doesn’t feel stale, and is one of the best things about the movie.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the plot, since the film is still brand new. Suffice to say that Thor and his pals have got their hands full this time around, since the film’s villain is easily one of my favorite villains of the year.

Her name is Hela.

She is the goddess of death.

She is played by Cate Blanchett.

She’s awesome.

Image: Marvel/Disney

“Oh, I’ve missed this,” she purrs, after making short work of Asgard’s armies. She is a force to be reckoned with, and Blanchett plays her perfectly. She reminded me a bit of Cruella de Ville, although perhaps Maleficent would be a better comparison. Either way, she’s fantastic, and Blanchett looks like she’s having a great time playing her. Hela is easily one of the best MCU villains, and just might be my number-one villain of 2017.

The movie is a joy to look at. The different settings in which the movie takes place all look gorgeous, as do the denizens that populate them. The movie is full of eye candy and the visual effects are among the best I’ve ever seen. Between Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel movies have been killing it with cutting-edge visual effects that are wondrous to behold.

The action scenes are exciting and will really get your blood pumping, and the movie contains two excellent uses of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” which was also used to great effect in the film’s trailers. “Immigrant Song” includes the lyric “Valhalla, I am coming,” so it’s perfect for Thor. And everyone knows that Thor is the God of Thunder, but in Ragnarok we get to see him cut loose with his thunder and lightning powers in ways we haven’t seen onscreen before. The results are fun and badass, which is everything Thor needs to be.

Image: Marvel/Disney

And let us not forget the green elephant in the room. That of course would be the HULK, who hasn’t been seen onscreen since 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. He’s played once again by Mark Ruffalo, who perfectly embodies Bruce Banner’s absolute bafflement in finding himself on an alien planet with no idea how he got there. The Hulk is a very fun character and it’s great to see him portrayed so well, after Marvel’s first two Hulk movies (2003’s Hulk and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk) met with mixed results.

The film’s trailers, posters, and other marketing material heavily promoted Hulk’s role in the film, which does somewhat lessen the impact of his initial appearance in the movie. There’s quite a lot of buildup to the not-so-jolly green giant’s big introduction, but if you’ve seen any of the movie’s posters or trailers, you already know what’s coming, so the moment doesn’t resonate as strongly as it would have if Hulk’s involvement had been less highly publicized.

Image: Marvel/Disney

Still, it’s hard to fault Marvel for promoting Hulk’s involvement, not to mention it would have been very difficult in this modern smartphone era to keep it a secret. It’s a bit of a missed opportunity though, since if Hulk had appeared with no one having had any idea he was going to be in the film, minds would have been blown. Mind you, I’m not criticizing Hulk’s inclusion in the movie, merely the way Marvel chose to promote it. Hulk fits right in to the story, and the scenes with Thor and Hulk are hilarious and give parts of the film a buddy-comedy vibe.

Image: Marvel/Disney

There are some new characters, such as the hard-drinking badass Valkyrie played by Tessa Thompson (of Creed and Westworld fame) and the Grandmaster, played by Jeff Goldblum at his most Jeff Goldblum-iest. These characters are a lot of fun, and I look forward to hopefully seeing more of them in future movies. There’s also Skurge, played by Karl Urban. Skurge is the only character who felt unnecessary to me. I like Karl Urban a lot but his character seemed like a bit of an afterthought.

There’s also Korg, played by Taika Waititi himself, although you’d never realize it because Korg is some kind of rock monster. He’s a very funny and likable rock monster though, and proves to be a strong ally for Thor and his pals. Anthony Hopkins returns as Odin and Idris Elba as Heimdall, and it’s fun to see both of them again. There’s also a brief but fun cameo from a certain Sorcerer Supreme, as well as the expected cameo from Stan Lee.

Thor: Ragnarok is a film that succeeds on every level. It’s quirky and weird and hilarious and beautiful and exciting and absolute tons of fun. If you weren’t impressed by previous Thor films, give this one a try. It just might change your mind.

On November 17, another big superhero movie lands in theaters. That movie is Justice League, and it’s got a lot to live up to after four excellent Marvel movies and the also-excellent Wonder Woman. We’ll have to wait and see if it can live up to the high standard of those movies, but in the meantime there’s another reason to head to the theater this weekend. It’s Murder on the Orient Express, and we’ll be talking about it next week.

Headhunters in More Ways Than One

After last week’s terrible film, I wanted to watch a good film to wash away the bad taste left by The Snowman. Since The Snowman was based on a book by Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbo, what better film to watch and write about than another film based on a Nesbo book?

That film is Headhunters, a brilliant 2011 film from Norway. Yes, it’s a foreign film and it’s in Norwegian, which necessitates the reading of subtitles (unless you speak Norwegian of course). But this does not detract from the sheer pleasure of watching this excellent film. As with The Snowman, I haven’t read Nesbo’s book. Also, beware of spoilers.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

Headhunters has an irresistible premise. The main character is Roger Brown, a successful corporate recruiter (or headhunter, if you prefer). He is five feet six inches tall and overcompensates massively. He lives a luxurious lifestyle and his wife Diana is tall, blond, and beautiful. He showers her with expensive gifts and they live in an elegant house.

But it’s all a façade. In reality, Roger is living well outside his means. All of his accounts are overdrawn, and he keeps his financial troubles from his wife. Roger and Diana are happy together, but Diana longs for a child and Roger is reluctant to have children, for reasons that are not immediately made clear. Diana has recently opened an art gallery with financial help from Roger, which has put him even deeper in debt.

But Roger has a secret way of making money. He uses his position as a recruiter to learn personal details about people he interviews. Specifically, he finds out if they have any valuable works of art. He finds out if they’re married, have kids, housekeepers, or dogs. Once he has this information, he uses it to figure out the right time to break into their house and steal their valuable paintings.

Aiding him in this endeavor is his associate Ove Kjikerud, who works at a security company and deactivates the alarms at the homes of Roger’s marks, allowing Roger to sneak in and swap the real painting for a counterfeit. It’s a slick operation that Roger and Ove have going, but of course it all starts to fall apart.

At the opening of Diana’s new art gallery, Roger meets a friend of Diana’s named Clas Greve. Clas is a former executive of a GPS company who is interested in working for the company Roger is recruiting for. Roger doesn’t like Clas at first, since he seems a bit too friendly with Diana. But he changes his mind when Diana tells him that Clas has asked her to help him authenticate a Peter Paul Rubens painting thought to be World War II. It could be worth tens of millions.

It’s too good of an opportunity to pass up, even when Roger discovers that Clas is an expert at finding people. Before he worked at the GPS company, Clas was a member of an elite military unit that specialized in tracking people. Clas was clearly involved in some dark stuff, and has the scars on his back to prove it.

Despite his misgivings, and after a fight with Diana about having children, Roger goes to Clas’ apartment to swipe the Rubens painting. While there, he sees a group of kids playing outside. He takes out his phone to call Diana, perhaps having changed his mind about not wanting to have children. But as soon as he dials her number, he hears a phone start to ring somewhere in Clas’ apartment. He follows the sound to Clas’ bedroom, where he finds Diana’s cell phone next to the bed.

Could she be cheating on him? With Clas?

I don’t want to give too much away, because I don’t want this post to drown in plot summary and because I really want people to see this film. Headhunters is a film that is full of twists and turns, and it would take too long to summarize them all. Instead, I’m going to focus on a couple of scenes that have always stood out to me.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

From the moment that Roger swipes the painting, he is a marked man. Clas proves to be extremely adept at finding him. He’s like the damn Terminator: wherever Roger goes, Clas is not far behind. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Roger goes to a remote cabin he and his associate Ove would use as meeting place in order to hide the painting. Roger takes the painting to the outhouse to hide it there, only to see Clas and his terrifying, enormous Pitbull arrive at the cabin. When the dog barks at the outhouse, Clas draws a weapon and advances on the outhouse. With nowhere else to hide, Roger takes refuge in the only place he can. Yep, this film gives entirely new meaning to the phrase “in the shit.” It’s disgusting but it’s also hilarious, and it’s tense as hell.

The suspense in this film will have you literally holding your breath. The first time I watched it I remember being on pins and needles the entire time, sometimes peering at the screen from behind clenched fingers. The tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Other highlights include Roger, covered in filth, driving a tractor down the road in the middle of the night with Clas’ gigantic Pitbull impaled on the front of it. Or Roger’s bumbling attempts to get rid of a corpse, which turns out to not be quite as dead as he thought it was.

Or the film’s most gruesome scene, when Roger is in the back seat of a police car sandwiched between two burly police officers, and Clas rams the cop car with a semi-truck, sending it flying into a ravine. Roger winds up upside down, still sandwiched between the two very burly and now very dead police officers. Seeing Clas approaching, he smears himself with blood and plays dead. But he is unable to close his eyes before Clas reaches him, and has to keep his eyes open while Clas investigates what he thinks is Roger’s corpse. It’s a fantastic scene, one of the most riveting and nail-biting I’ve ever seen. Brilliantly, the film forces the viewer to keep their eyes open the entire time, since Clas takes his time inspecting the crash. It’s bloody and not for the faint of heart, but it’s utterly fantastic.

Afterward, Roger realizes that Clas has planted microscopic tracking devices in his hair, so he brutally shaves his head using scissors and a razor. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Roger. He’s a bit of a cad, but watching him break down in tears as he painfully shaves his head in a ravine surrounded by corpses is downright emotional. He’s in hell, but it’s a hell of his own making, which is always the worst kind.

Roger is a fascinating protagonist. Why does he do what he does? Many of his actions are deplorable, but you could argue that he does many of them for his wife in order to make her happy. Conversely, you could argue that many of his actions are simply for the sake of his own ego and his massive need to overcompensate. He’s psychologically complex and always watchable. He’s in pretty much every scene in the movie, and he’s magnetic in all of them.

There’s a deeply touching scene late in the film between Roger and Diana. They haven’t seen each other in a while because Roger has been on the run from Clas, and when Roger finally comes home Diana welcomes him. She is heartbroken when she sees Roger bald, scarred, and wearing someone else’s clothes. She admits to her affair with Clas, and deeply regrets it. She tells Roger that she’s done with Clas. Roger is the one she wants. She loves him.

He loves her too, and finally tells her what he has been unable to tell her the entire time they have been together. He tells her that he’s scared. He’s been scared ever since he first met her. Scared that she would see what kind of person he really was, and not like it. Scared that, if they had a child, she would love the child more than him. It’s a heartbreaking revelation, and it’s easy to see that it’s a hard confession for Roger to make. It also reframes many of his actions throughout the film and makes the viewer see him in a completely different light.

Roger is played by Aksel Hennie, a Norwegian actor known to American audiences for his roles in Hercules and The Martian. In Headhunters, he gives what is probably one of my all-time favorite screen performances. The fact that all the dialogue is in Norwegian does not detract at all from Hennie’s superb acting. The movie puts Roger through the ringer time and time again, and Hennie sells every second of it.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

Clas is played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, a Danish actor best known for playing Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones was actually filming at the same time as Headhunters, which made scheduling difficult for the film. As a result, there are long stretches of the film in which Clas does not appear, but as with any good suspense or horror film, the presence of Clas as the antagonist is strongly felt. It’s like he’s always lurking just out of frame, and when he does appear it’s all the more meaningful. Coster-Waldau is a great actor, effortlessly suave and menacing. Someone make him the villain in a James Bond movie, ASAP. Daniel Craig ain’t getting any younger.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

Finally, Diana is played by Synnove Macody Lund, in her first acting role. She was formerly a model, journalist, and even a film critic. She’s gorgeous in that statuesque Scandinavian way, and whenever she’s onscreen it’s hard to take your eyes off her. She’s soulful and intelligent, and it’s understandable that Roger would be protective of her, and maybe even intimidated by her. She’s great.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

The movie was directed by a Norwegian director named Morten Tyldum, whose next film was The Imitation Game, which earned multiple Academy Award nominations, including best picture, actor and director. He then made the controversial sci-fi film Passengers with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, which received a mixed reception. Headhunters is a fantastically-directed movie, and is funny, gross, touching, and nail-bitingly tense, sometimes all at the same time. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Tyldum makes it look easy.

Headhunters is the kind of film in which every small detail is important. You could probably poke holes in the story if you really wanted to, but why bother? Headhunters is a superbly-crafted thriller that easily rivals any American-made film, and is right up there among my favorite films of all time.

Coming up next week, one of the most highly-anticipated movies of the year. I’ve heard nothing but great things about it and I can’t wait to see it. It’s THOR: RAGNAROK. See you next week!